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03 June, 2014

Reuniting the Congress

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Like Humpty Dumpty, the Congress, the grand old party, had a great fall. All the party’s warhorses and all the party’s men now face the task of putting it together again.

The Congress had spearheaded the freedom movement and wielded power for most of India’s 67 years as a free country. In the recent general election it was pulverised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The party has lost elections earlier, too, but this time it has also lost its primacy in the national polity. While the BJP increased its poll from 18.8 per cent in 2009 to 31.0 per cent and secured a comfortable majority in the new Lok Sabha, the Congress party’s vote share fell from 28.6 per cent to 19.3 per cent and it has been reduced to a rump with only 44 members in the 543-member house.

The Nehru-Gandhi family has led the party for all but a few years since Independence. As soon as the election results became known, President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-president Rahul Gandhi owned up responsibility for the defeat. However, the other central leaders, who owe their positions to them, absolved them.

Even so, last week, the family came under muted criticism from two state-level functionaries. They swore continued allegiance to Sonia Gandhi but insinuated that Rahul Gandhi was responsible for the party’s defeat.

The party suspended both of them to ensure that others do not feel tempted to follow their example.

The fact is that the Congress cannot do without the dynasty. The party had an opportunity to free itself from its spell when Sonia Gandhi refused to step in on the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. PV Narasimha Rao held the offices of prime minister and Congress president for five years, and Sitaram Kesari succeeded him in the party post.

In 1998, Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party in response to insistent demands from the rank and file. The party unanimously chose her for the prime minister’s post in 2004 when it was in a position to form a coalition government. However, mindful of the sentiments outside the party against her on account of her Italian origin, she stepped down in favour of Manmohan Singh.

Coterie rule has been the hallmark of the family’s leadership style since Indira Gandhi’s time. Last year, following demands to entrust Rahul Gandhi with more responsibilities he was promoted from General Secretary to Vice-president. That led to the emergence of two coteries, one around Sonia and the other around Rahul, and the two did not see things the same way.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, facing the burden of a decade of incumbency and weighed down by grievous charges of corruption, desperately needed a leader who could convince the electorate that he was capable of ushering in change. In the time available to him, Rahul Gandhi could not develop the image of a credible agent of change. Congress campaigners’ talk of a third UPA government made it easy for Modi to convince the people that he is the agent of change they are looking for.

The Sonia coterie blotched Rahul Gandhi’s plan to change the character of the party by giving women and youth a greater share in the list of candidates. The news channels delivered the final blow. As Modi turned the poll into a presidential kind of race, television coverage did Rahul Gandhi in, the way the televised debates with John Kennedy during the 1960 US election did Richard Nixon in.

The Congress party’s decline began long before Rahul Gandhi or even Sonia Gandhi arrived on the scene. Its origin can be traced to Indira Gandhi’s failure to rebuild the party machinery after the 1969 split. Over the years the system of nominating leaders resulted in the extinction of men with grassroots support, and the party came to be saddled with functionaries who owe their position solely to their proximity to the Gandhis.

Those who want to write off Rahul Gandhi as a leader who has failed are pinning their hopes on his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who gustily replied to Modi’s criticism during the campaign, reviving memories of her grandmother. But the land deal allegations against her husband, Robert Vadra, render her more vulnerable to attack than Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress has to pull itself up by the bootstraps if it wants to be a part of the future, and not remain a part of the past. It cannot regain lost ground without ridding itself of corrupt elements and projecting a new image.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 3, 2014

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